Thursday, 31 March 2005

Extraordinary means

It is a restless night for me - seeing the condition of Pope John Paul reminds me of an area in which I have a certain conflict. I am thankful, since both my parents (who had long lives) were ill for some years, but, when the end came, it was natural and quick. John Paul's life was longer than many and as rich and full as anyone's. I am hoping that he does not end up on life support - stuck in a limbo where one cannot pass to the next life, yet no longer can use faculties in this one.

Trachaeotomy is nothing unusual, and I suppose that a feeding tube can hardly be called extraordinary, particularly if it is in response to a temporary condition. But, for all my admiration of John Paul, I regret that I cannot see his current sufferings as somehow inspirational. When it comes time for me to leave this earth, I want to do so. No, I am in no hurry to die! Yet I do not fear when that time comes (for all that I fear suffering on this earth.)

With what dilemmas technology has left the moral theologians! (In my case, I believe I'll have a tattoo on my torso, saying no extraordinary measures.) I do not believe that one ever has a moral obligation to be placed on machines - nor even to have every medical procedure that possibly can prolong life. If a cancer patient chose palliative care only (as I would), and then did his best to enjoy what was left of his life, is this to be considered a 'suicide' - because he did not prefer to be cut, burnt, have chemicals course through his veins (and the dreadful side effects), and be in and out of hospitals?

Where does it end? Normally, food and water could not be considered extraordinary, I would imagine even 'by tube,' but at which point does this become hopeless? Today, in reading of the Terry Schiavo case, I breathed a sigh of relief that this poor woman could finally go in peace - and prayed that God would grant peace to the living. Yet the Vatican spokesman called it euthanasia.

Normally, I would not record such disassociated thoughts on a blog - the more because I have no answers. (I am wondering if anyone does.) I am just hoping that, if this is the 'end,' John Paul can pass from this life to the next with peace and dignity.

Authority and such

There are a number of Italian stories, quite hilarious, which feature a clever and quite irreverent fellow named Bartoldo. Highlights of one of the stories should capture the flavour. The king and queen were quite insulted that, when Bartoldo was at Court, he would never bow to them. Their Majesties therefore had the doorway lowered, so that Bartoldo could not enter the room without bowing from the waist. And so Bartoldo did... but he came in backwards...

I am not anywhere near as clever or devilish as our Bartoldo, yet I have a rather light attitude towards authority. Yes, I'll be irritated if people do not conduct themselves properly in court, for example, but, though I may respect traditions, and indeed I often fear those in authority, I do not have a high regard for those who hold this unless they have demonstrated reasons for such respect. I have no regard, nor even understanding of, such currently popular treasures as 'family values' (...though I came from a tradition of responsible commitment to extended family, and cared for both my parents when they were old and sick), patriotism (please! trust in politicians has been seen as foolish at least since Julius Caesar), and the like. In fact, I dislike when the faith is too centred on the family - because one may need to mature and think one has lost one's faith in the process of growing away from family as one's centre.

My orthodoxy could not be questioned - and my manner of life, basically centred on prayer, is after a fashion which goes to the third and fourth centuries of Christianity. I can see, looking over the history of the Church and the writings of the great saints, that certain matters are essential - and that deviation from them in the past proved that ignoring the essential could turn people into nut cases. Yet I think it regrettable, in recent centuries (when faith hardly burnt white hot), that too much emphasis was placed on duty and obligations - and little on holiness. It is ironic that the idea of 'duties towards God and neighbour' did not kindle a fire of asceticism. (In the true sense - I am not talking hair shirts here.)

I believe it was Marcel Metzger who wrote of how worship and sacrament as a 'duty towards God' distorted concepts of both. The 'rules' about attendance at the Eucharist and recitation of the Offices certainly have an important foundation - yet, as Metzger described, the emphasis on obligation led to canons of cathedrals reciting the appointed offices during the time of hearing a Mass, and how those who made sacramental confession feared actions of amendment (and some priests to remind them of that obligation) because 'secrecy' would mean that one must not betray anything that one had confessed. (Of course, in 'my day,' being inclusive became the eleventh commandment. I would have thought the Church already was universal... yet the fear of anyone's feeling left out led to actions which have left many of those who are a generation younger than I with a sense of no moral integrity in Church teachings.)

If I may be permitted another loose association, I am thinking of an apt observation by Dominican theologian Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, whom I often find to have a rare degree of common sense. Though he was writing specifically of Paul's attitudes towards the Law, Murphy-O'Connors insights on that topic are worth consideration in any century.

Murphy-O'Connor argues cleverly, regarding Jewish attitudes towards the Law, that ‘the human mind instinctively simplifies.’ Lip service was paid to the fundamental concept of gratuitous grace in election, but, in practise, attention was concentrated on observance of the commandments. Membership in the covenant was necessary to salvation, and God’s giving of the law had established the covenant. Obedience to the Law did not earn salvation, a gift of grace, but was required to remain within the covenant. Not obeying would damn.

If disobedience meant damnation, it seems logical (given the tendency to simplify!) that obedience wins salvation. A religion of grace expressed in covenant form (in the popular imagination, if not in theological dissertations) becomes one of meritorious achievement. Paul’s concerns were less about the idea that there could be an approach to the law of effectively ‘buying salvation’ than the inversion of values consequent on the importance attached to obedience and law.

Murphy-O'Connor illustrates, from rabbinical stories, how God ‘failed to realise that, once He’d given the Law, it was out of his hands. Only the voice of rabbis counted.’ He adds that, “Jewish theological thought debated points of law, not mysteries of grace.”

Murphy-O'Connor comments that the Law, “Left no real space for God, grace, or faith – only for obedience.”

Of course, if the root of the word for obedience means to listen... well, that is not such a bad idea at all. :)

Wednesday, 30 March 2005

No vow of silence here

Computer difficulties, services for Holy Week and Easter, and the like have prevented my writing for the past few days - not that this is any loss. :) Still, the resurrection is a topic unique in that one could write volumes on the subject and remain fully aware that one is saying 'nothing.' No belief is more central to the Christian faith - nor teaches us better the limitations of our knowledge and experience. We can express our faith in doxology, but forget the rational explanations.

My literary side is tempted to picture what the disciples encountered in the Risen Lord, but perhaps I am too weary to pursue this at the moment (...or realise such speculations can lead only to sheer invention.) Yet one interesting example of what the early believers would grasp is presented in the first chapter of the First Epistle of Peter. In verses 3-5 alone, there is talk of new birth, living hope, salvation, unfading inheritance, through the Father's raising Jesus from the dead.

One flaw, very common in theological writings for many centuries, was that the emphasis was on Jesus's Incarnation (or, more usually, his crucifixion) as saving us from punishment. This too often translated into: we now are saved from hell - the only hope we should have is seeing God in heaven - so take the punishment here!

There is no explanation for the suffering and evil of this life. Yet many of us, myself included, have had the experience of seeing God as remote. Peter, in the epistle reference, reminds us of the continuous action of Creation - and of the Jewish emphasis on God's being active in creation, constantly, in covenant faithfulness. I am not about to analyse how - but I do know that, in much Christian thought, there was an error of thinking that 'the kingdom' was for after we die, and that the life here was merely an endurance test. (It certainly feels that way sometimes...) :) Give me a shouting Abraham or angry psalmist any day, over the tight-lipped "God's will be done... and I'd damn well better keep saying that before he takes the cane to me" attitude I saw so often.

Thursday, 24 March 2005

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet my honest nature prompts me to further comment that the bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are perhaps the only universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (Well, all right ... I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a 'golden age' is a favourite pastime of everyone in every era, yet such have never existed.

I am not likely to call the Last Supper an actual celebration of the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) Yet Maundy Thursday is one of those days when something approaching Ignatian meditation is exceedingly tempting. In fact, I'm even going to toss aside my better scriptural commentaries and not question whether it actually was Passover, etc., etc..

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) When I was reading Luke yesterday, and this soon before I became immersed in the haunting magic of Tenebrae, I had to smile, seeing how, right to the end, the apostles were tossing about the idea of who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

It is all too easy, particularly if one not only watches the scriptural epics and reads the 'Lives of Christ' of another time, and has been exposed to the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth, to picture twelve intense young men, in great awe at having been first to see the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. Actually, what was present at the Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with all this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were either simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated a day early. (Well, at least, in that day, they were spared the irate vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "But wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. I would imagine that Matthew was still sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering all of his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from that sad incident of attempting to walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Still, whenever I heard the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me to think that the perpetual memorial has endured for two millenia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water was the catholic element - and these rituals of common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc., with Christians being the odd ones who conformed neither to Jewish nor pagan society.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. We shall never accept that, of course. :) Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that some ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made...

Tuesday, 22 March 2005

Forgive them, Father - they know not what they do

Being of an income bracket where renting films is not usually possible, I borrow what I can from a local library (though the selection is not the widest.) It seemed a good week for the 1963 "King of Kings." From either the literary or theological standpoint, there are deficiencies in that film that could fill pages - for example, Jesus seems to have little notion of what he is doing, yet his mother knows before he does (witness the ominous 'the chair will never be mended!') Still, despite all this, and my having viewed the film many times, there still is one moment which leaves me deeply moved. When the Roman Lucius, with obvious disgust at Pilate's action, is releasing Barabbas, the line he speaks is, "Go! Look at him who is dying for you!" (I just had a chill typing that!)

I have read much speculation (and some intense scholarship) regarding to whom Jesus was referring when he asked the Father's forgiveness at the cross. I certainly hope that he was referring to every one of us. :) My cynical side, nonetheless, tells me that, more often than not, we are all too aware of what we are doing.

I do not believe that Jesus's crucifixion (unlike the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension) resulted from the direct will of God. Jesus, in his humanity, accepted the vocation of proclaiming the kingdom. The outcome was man's doing.

During my university years (first time around), many scholars, and quite correctly, were decrying the idea of 'corporate guilt' in relation to the crucifixion, specifically the deplorable past idea that the Jewish nation had been guilty of deicide. In my current university years, I need to be careful to remember that another sort of corporate guilt (where, forgive me Lord for the sarcasm, our own sins do not matter, but we somehow are to be blamed for what happened long before we were born, or for things in which we had not part) is favoured by some theologians. I have seen writings which see the 'corporate guilt' business as a heightened, and therefore to be esteemed, sense of sin and call to amendment.

I am no fan of Andrew Greeley's, yet I well remember one quotation of his which deserves mention. He was speaking of how some religious are so pre-occupied with speaking of oppression in third world nations where they can do nothing that they cannot see the needs of, or wrongs done to, those in the next pew. This is not to minimise the sufferings of those in the third world, of course! Yet, were I to do penance not for my own failings, but take refuge in, perhaps, feeling guilty because I have running water and decent housing, what good does my fretting do for anyone, including myself?

The 1970s (less so than today - but it probably was the dawn of the attitude) was a wonderful time for self-esteem. (Ahem!) All of us were sinless individually. Any admission of weakness or sinfulness was 'putting oneself down,' and, indeed, as a Roman Catholic at the time, I can testify that the rare attempt to make sacramental confession would often lead to the response of 'nothing you are telling me is a sin.' Now, much as I should like to believe that I was sinless for ten years, I should think that rather unlikely.

I do not want to rant about the bizarre 'self-help' culture today - I have little patience with people who cast themselves as victims, and who become fascinated with their own 'journey,' through their playing at being mentally ill! (Note that I am not speaking here of legitimate medical treatment of true mental illness!) Certainly, I can see where introspection can play a part in repentance - if one is inclined towards a particular sin, it can be very important to see what is behind one's repeatedly failing in this fashion. Yet that does not seem to be the favoured approach. If one sees that 'this' is the reason one does 'that,' it hardly means 'I therefore am guiltless.' It was my childhood - my parents - my rejection - my needs... it was the woman... no, it was the serpent...

I'm smiling, remembering my very favourite "scriptural epic," and this one a masterpiece: Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth." I'll spare my readers a review here, but shall recall that there were a few delicious 'inside jokes' in the action. I'm thinking of when Barabbas and the two other criminals to be executed are awaiting their crucifixions. One of the thieves thinks it is best just to get it over with - and the other shouts (and forgive the error in grammar, which is in the original) "It was him that did the murder, not me!"

Sunday, 20 March 2005

Franciscan jester here

With all of the solemnity ahead this coming week, I need to lapse into the mood of the Franciscan jester. Naturally, this means a few reminiscences of priests whom I have known - and who all have departed this life. I have images of them, dressed in their rumpled and patched Franciscan robes, perhaps having a few laughs perched on a cloud together. (Tom - the little Becket of my previous post - I picture - to become poetic for a moment - perched on a cloud in sheer contentment, rumpled wings poking out from over-sized raiment - looking to unfortunates down below, and calling, 'the back of both o' me hands to you, now!')

I well remember dear Fr Hilary - who, unlike my usual assortment of priest friends, was a Benedictine. Hilary frequently re-wrote devotions for use by his little congregation. Since both he and they were native Italian speakers, Hilary often asked me to read his translations before they were circulated - his English was good, but he did not always catch nuance. I well remember his adaptation of the Stations of the Cross, which was one of few I did not 'proof' first. I still shudder, remembering him solemnly announcing one Station as "Christ bows his bloody head and dies."

Though the following memory is not suited to this season, it does fit in with my musing over Franciscan images of the Incarnation. Father Michael was unusually short and slight, but highly expansive, and his gestures tended to be fit for a man the size of Goliath of Gath. Michael also was Italian, and had learnt his English from a woman who had a very high, light voice. Consequently, he spoke English (though not his native tongue) in an extremely squeaky voice. The combination of massive gestures and chirping tones gave a general effect of a jumping-jack in an uncharacteristic brown costume.

Michael's warmth and sincerity were enormous as he reminded his congregation, during an Advent sermon, that this was a time when "we have to thank God for the c-u-u-u-te little baby Jesus!" Raising his arms over his head like the risen Messiah, Michael expounded, "The great God!!!" (Hands now at breast height, illustrating the size of an ample newborn.) "He became-a so small!" Michael's sermon continued for a time, with repeated references to the 'great God who became-a so small,' and, though I was biting my lip not to laugh aloud, many of the congregation were moved nearly to tears. (Franciscan theology can be odd at times - but their sermons do stimulate a sense of the vivid.)

I was congratulating myself for not having lapsed into a laughing fit - which would have been most uncomfortable for a highly visible director of music. And all went well until Michael's little voice piped, "Behold-a the lamb of God!"

I may have retained what little was left of my composure had the friar next to me not whispered, "He became-a so small!"

Hosanna to the Son of David

...and, I promise, that I shall not begin musing unduly on how I'm positive that the same people who shouted "Hosanna" were crying out "Crucify him" a few days later. :)

Rather, I am thinking first of the LXX text of Isaiah 45:23-25.

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth,
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn…
Before me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear…
In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength…
All who have rages against Him will be put to shame…
In (me) all descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult.”

I am very tempted to go into a massive exegesis of Philippians 2 - the more because I have been reviewing commentaries these past few days which have a rare richness. I am weary, however, and shall mention only a few points.

The term used for Jesus' being in the 'form' refers to that ‘form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it,' according to Philip T. O'Brien.  The saving significance of Jesus’ death is not the stress here. The central concern of this passage is what Jesus’ obedience meant for him – condescension, humiliation, death, and finally exaltation. As well, Jesus is showing us the nature of God - sacrificial, self-giving, and naturally the ultimate in humility (since the meaning of 'humility' is 'truth.')

I found the following quote from N. T. Wright to be worth some reflection: ‘The real humiliation of the incarnation and cross was that one who was himself God, and who never…stopped being God, could embrace such a vocation.’ But where do we take this? We are deified through Christ - and the Creator continually recreates us in his own image - where Christ took on our likeness.

I cannot claim to understand in just what 'obedience' consists. Yet it is sad that, for centuries, too much theological thought stressed atonement and sacrifice (the latter as if Jesus had to appease the Father.) Deification was lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Today, my prayer for myself and my readers is that we are given the grace for a true "Hosanna." May this Holy Week be a time of realising Jesus' glory - and our own.

Saturday, 19 March 2005

As we enter Holy Week

It is odd, the memories that can come upon us unaware. I well remember returning from my mother's funeral, two years ago today. I was highly tense, and thought that turning on the television might help me to unwind. Of course, the news that greeted me - the beginning of the war in Iraq - hardly tended towards that end.

As always, I am looking forward to Holy Week - and I'm sure that I shall have comments to make about the liturgical, scriptural richness. (Grinning, I shall add: I am most fortunate to have nearby churches with splendid music. Besides all of the wonderful services ahead - and the magic of sitting before the repository, for example - what starving scholar cannot be glad at the thought of all the free concerts that are built into the bargain?)

I have never been one much for discursive meditation (I am too literary - once I get started, I'm inwardly writing a novel.) Yet I often imagine how devastating Jesus' arrest and crucifixion must have been for his disciples. It certainly was no accident that the Risen Lord's first words were of forgiveness - I'm sure the memory of their own actions burnt them to the quick.

Christianity is a faith of waiting and uncertainty, and so it shall remain until the parousia (which we may not recognise when it comes...) I know that many scholars today question whether the first Christians expected Christ's return (and their glory) to be at hand, but any knowledge of human nature would make one expect that the idea of transformation soon to come would have been sustaining - and the resurrection would make it quite believable. :)

The very 'already - not yet' quality of the New Testament eschatology can make one hover between expectation and doubt. Is this all true? How did Jesus' Incarnation, in its fullness, change anything on this earth? (Mankind surely is capable of no less evil - none of the natural sufferings of this world are lessened.) Salvation history is waiting for revelation - for the Messiah - for the final coming in glory... To an unbeliever, it could seem as if Christians were always assuring themselves that glorious things had happened, then hiding behind 'but the best is yet to come.'

I know that I can speak words of doxology, meaning every word - then wonder, "is this all true?" The silence is overwhelming at times. We can catch a glimpse of divine glory, which only reminds us that we barely know God at all. Words unite us to him in prayer - and suddenly seem to mean nothing.

It is a bit of a penance for me, writing today - knowing that these thoughts are disjointed and confused. Yet I shall return to the repository image for a moment. There is something about the silence of that time of adoration that leaves me with incredible awe. I sense Jesus' hidden glory at the ugliest time of his life. On the night of his arrest, he, too, would have been dealing with waiting and uncertainty.

Friday, 18 March 2005

Being just a bit of a Rambler

From The Two Catholic Churches, by Anthony Archer

“In his rather luxuriant work on the Blessed Sacrament, Father Frederick Faber had described a helpless and captive God, experiencing a mournful solitude in the little dungeon of the tabernacle. This was the Jesus whose fondness for silence was known because nothing more silent than the sacrament could be thought of; it was the God who was carried about and broken into 3 pieces by priests who washed the sacred vessels and napkins as Joseph might have washed the clothes of Christ.

All this was set against a background of speculation that Christ had given Mary the sacrament at the Last Supper, and that it had remained in her, uncorrupted, so that he could be in her during his Passion… And it evoked the desire to put ‘our little crown of puny love on the long hair which covers his beautiful head.’

Newman remarked that he knew of no book that would so readily turn him into an infidel.”

I believe that John Henry Newman was spot on in insisting that “Truth is wrought out by many minds working together freely. As far as I can make out, this has ever been the rule of the church until now,” provided that one considers the entire Counter-Reformation period as 'now,' rather than Newman's own day. As Anthony Archer summarises: To cut the faithful off from study of doctrine and require implicit faith would “in the educated, terminate in indifference, in the poorer, in superstition.”

In the course of my studying varied documents which were either produced or largely consulted during the 19th century, I came across a manual which the Ursuline Nuns used for their schools. Teachers were cautioned about offering explanations or encouraging questions and discussions, because the goal of religious education was to foster humble obedience and faith.

The nuns who taught me in my youth were of a congregation founded, in Ireland, during the period of the penal laws. Originally, the sisters (mostly educated by Ursulines), were of a certain Catholic elite - yet they wished to educate the poorer classes (sometimes referred to as 'wicked' children, but that is another topic), believing that vice stemmed from a lack of religious knowledge. That view is limited - and indeed rather naive - yet, for all my respect for those educational efforts, I see a great irony in that education was seen as the solution to the ills of the world and for fostering of the faith, yet the use of reason which is essential to true education was rather feared. (Of course, neither the secular authorities nor the bishops would have considered the first Sisters to have been particularly obedient... I must get to that topic some time.)

In RC catechesis of children, I well remember that, in explanations of sin, the illustrations were of disobedience to church law, such as those governing Mass attendance and Friday abstinence. I had thought this was purely pragmatic, because such examples could be readily grasped by children of seven - where, for example, explanations of the differences between gossip and calumny would be deep water. My own view was too limited. The idea of obedience as central was the natural outflow of the Council of Trent's statement that 'faith excludes curiosity.'

Newman would see a deplorable situation in which intellect ‘is not met with counter or stronger intellect, but by authority.’ I am an anarchist at heart, and could agree without such a position's truly affecting me. :) Yet would Newman or I ever even admit the possibility that some attitudes towards the faith are not intellectual in the least? (Certainly, neither of us were capable of being politically astute...)

By design, we have two ears and only one mouth

Tomorrow being the feast of Saint Joseph, I thought it appropriate to include a modern reflection related to him. This excerpt is from Daily Meditations by John Paul II:

Joseph of Nazareth is a "just man" because he totally "lives by faith." He is holy because his faith is truly heroic.

Sacred Scripture says little of him. It does not record even one word spoken by Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. And yet, even without words, he shows the depth of his faith, his greatness.

Saint Joseph is a man of great spirit. He is great in faith, not because he speaks his own words, but above all because he listens to the words of the Living God. He listens in silence. And his heart ceaselessly perseveres in the readiness to accept the Truth contained in the word of the Living God.

There are many meditations one can write about Joseph, yet, this being one of my weary days, what immediately comes to mind is how frequently we forget that God gave us two ears and only one mouth. My early adult years were spent largely in the company of religious Sisters. I am not suggesting that this little reflection is exclusive to nuns - my focus on the members of that set is merely to illustrate my specific personal experience.

Religious Sisters often were taught that the value of their example was very important. I would never minimise the value of good example, though I dare say that those whose example has taught me the most undoubtedly were not seeking to display said example. Unwittingly, the authors who reminded nuns of this gave us the impression that we were far more important in people's lives than was the case. Another 'two edged sword' attribute was that nearly all of us were deeply concerned for others - and it is very hard to grasp that, nearly always, though we may lovingly listen to others' problems, there really is nothing that we can do.

The caring and commitment we had normally was very strong, and our intentions were the best. Had we not been taught to insist, even to ourselves, that we had to be totally selfless, we may have seen the innocent but sometimes problematic desire to be special that could colour our views. When one wants to have the solution to every problem, whether said solution is 'you should just trust in God' or 'you should do this, loving intentions do not cancel that we can come across as not understanding, or as assuming we know ever aspect of a person's situation when that is rarely true, or that this can come across as condescension - as if we knew better than everyone else how they should live their lives.

I well remember, perhaps 30 years ago, when I attended a seminar in pastoral care. One exercise was in repeating back some point another person made, to show that one was listening. Though it clearly was intended to sharpen our focus, too much of the later 'role playing' made it plain that the obligation to constantly make comments either totally diverted the conversation or prevented the speaker from ever finishing a sentence! Rather than truly listening, we often fell into just watching for a 'key word' on which we could build a response.

It can be difficult, when we see others in pain, to know that we can do nothing to assist. Yet our listening may be highly valuable. Most people are not asking us to solve their problems, but wish just not to be alone with them.

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

A bit more on perspective and confusion

I frequently laugh at myself, because, rational though I can be, I am such a Romantic at heart. Perhaps that is why I find my 19th century studies, brilliant though many of the 'characters' were, to have an undertone of amusement. It was an era when there was undue emphasis on progress, as if this had led to unmatched moral perfection, yet, on many other levels, an idea that, if the right century to which one could revert could be found, all would be well. I can identify with (I am saying this wryly!) Oxford Movement fathers who saw the ideal blend as 14th century liturgy and 4th century theology. (Though, with my being seasoned by 20th century liturgical renewal, I'd probably favour the fourth century on both... even if my own speciality is 14th century mysticism... And I have enough pragmatism to know that we have not the slightest notion of what was going on in worship of the 4th century, not to mention that the brilliant Christian theologians tended to be surrounded by pagans.)

One hundred years from now, I'm sure, young theologians may be reading documents from c. 1970, and picture that it was a glorious time. I could develop that idea at great length, but, for the moment, I'm going to include only one of my giggles. Annibale Bugnini and friends, to mention a single liturgical change, pictured a glorious Communion procession - the faithful raising one voice to the praise of Christ... The reality was perhaps the largest RC liturgical mistake. Most people saw the 'procession' as less reverent, and walking to communion with a hymnal in one hand (the more if one was holding a child or elderly parent with the other) had little glamour.

At parish and even diocesan levels, too often those charged with implementing liturgical changes had no background in liturgy or even theology (it more often was 'religious education' of children.) Those who did have the background tended to be priests, who could not comment lest they stifle the action of the Holy Spirit, seem paternalistic, or see correctness as superior to 'getting the people more involved.' I could relate a thousand stories of confusion, but one shall suffice to give the flavour. In the first revisions of the Roman rite, the priest would have said, "May the Body and Blood of Christ preserve my soul unto life everlasting." Later, quite appropriately, "my soul" was changed to "me," because mentioning 'soul' alone was inadequate in view of the doctrine of the resurrection. I head this explained, on a local level, as a move to get people not to think of their souls... lest they connect sin with the reception of the Eucharist.

Worship expresses truths which it is beyond human reason to adequately explain. It is unfortunate that public prayer too often wass seen as an 'obligation, ' or, worse (in some cases) as a practise to be valued solely for social benefits. (I have no notion of what 'family values' are - and am not sure I wish to know - but I have seen enough Internet sites to know that this is what prompts some churchgoing in this world.) By the time of the Reformation, there was such emphasis on atonement and forgiveness that Jesus never seemed to get off the cross. The Counter-Reformation moved in another direction - making the Sacrament a sort of relic and the church a shrine, and, though the Host was adored, to wish to communicate practically seemed ungrateful. Where did the element of eschatology hide?

In his brilliant work,Sacrament of Salvation, the Reverend Doctor Paul McPartlan emphasises that the New Testament texts were intended to be shared at celebrations of the Eucharist. Much of what he wrote was deeply impressive, and I should like to share one passage which had to do with Hebrews 12:18- 22-24 . Here is the scripture text itself:

It is not to the tangible, burning fire of Sinai that you have come, with its darkness, gloom, and whirlwind. No, you have come to Mount Zion, the city of your living God, to myriad angels, to the full concourse and assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of new men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, whose sprinkled blood has better things to say than the blood of Abel.

Dr McPartlan explains this as follows:

“Hebrews teaches that what breaks upon this world whenever the Eucharist is celebrated is the assembly of all the angels and saints surrounding Christ in his glory in the heavenly Jerusalem; nothing less than the assembly of the last day, inaugurating the festival which is to last forever, the banquet of eternity. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, participants in this earthly liturgy are caught up into this heavenly scene… they see what is stored up as the fulfilment of God’s purpose, what is already overshadowing this world, actively moulding it for eternity. Christians are sure in their hope because they experience is fulfilment in anticipation every Sunday (do this in memory of me.)”

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Agreement - unlikely!

I well remember, for example during my university years, when there was some nostalgia amongst the religious breed for the supposed first century Church harmony. Yes, everyone must have been marvelling at how 'these Christians love one another.' I am smiling - the most cursory reading of Paul's epistles (with any decent commentary, not to receive one's personal word for the day) shows that tumult within local flocks was already the order of the day. Nor were church councils ever sweet and idealistic gatherings - witness the situation at Jerusalem and Antioch in Galatians and Acts, and the embarrassing situation for vacillating, quite fallible Peter. The Corinthians would have tried the patience of the most gifted pastor in history - and, judging from Clement of Rome's letter a few decades after Paul's martyrdom, Corinth was no better for whatever exhortations...

The real Gloriana was a pragmatic sort - and, though I'm not about to go into any essays about the Elizabethan settlement here (...I just know I shall someday), about all the C of E could strive for was unity of worship. I took a break from Lenten exegesis today, and spent some time with my 19th century studies. Yes, the Prayer Book was intact (with some arguing if it was too Catholic, others too Protestant), but, as usual, no one could agree on anything else. Being inclusive at the expense of doctrine - emphasising doctrine and patristic roots (without much distinction about whether everything from the 3rd century would be prudent later...) - the family as the source of holiness - loss of faith because growing up meant getting away from family and therefore the source of holiness - well, there were too many conflicts to detail in a blog, but it was clear that nothing had changed much since Paul's day.

Naturally, I found the histories of the many Sisterhoods of the era (not only Anglican, but new foundations of RC sisters in Ireland) to be quite intriguing. (Puzzling at times, of course - because I need to remind myself that many more Sisters embraced the life because of disgust at social conditions than because of exceptional devotion.) And yet more opposition would come - it is taking them away from family life - releasing them from obedience to their fathers - their work is a slight to the women involved in the parishes - they pray too much - they pray too little - reserve is essential - witness is more so - intellectual stimulation will cause hysteria - the founders want their money - their confessors are perverts - Anglicans thought it all too Catholic - RC convents would not advise them because they did not have the true faith - Anglican Catholics are imposters...

This is one of my 'rambling' days, and I shall not develop these topics in depth for the moment. Yet I know that, until the very moment of the parousia, the last sounds to die out on this earth shall be those of arguments. One of these days, the lot of us may catch on that, though each Christian's vocation is important, it is as a Church that we serve. Sacrament and Word are not at odds. Monastic life is not a denial of the 'universal call to holiness,' nor active religious life a reproach to marriage and maternity. Respect for the priesthood is hardly a denial of the contribution of the laity. Why do we tend to be so blasted defensive?

Monday, 14 March 2005

Note about links on this blog

Both Gloriana's Court (and the religious links) are from my personal domain. The Star Course and Saint Aidan's are hosted by the other contributors to this site.

The "Anglican blogs" link is not associated with my own domain, and is included because, frankly, with 'blogging' being as new an 'art' as it is, I thought it might be interesting to see how others are developing this. It is not an endorsement of individual sites' content or style.

The new trend towards maintaining blogs somehow reminds me of the days when personal home pages first became popular... and many people seemed to think that the entire world was wondering what their height, weight, and IQ was. (In many cases, the text made it clear that the estimated number for that last had been most likely doubled. ) If anyone wishes to see what I had to write about this in 1996, my Internet site still has the Crusade for Class Acts on the Internet page... outdated though it is.

Once I get used to this blogging business, I shall undoubtedly compose a most irreverent guide for the blog world.... that should be a nice break after the Passiontide and Resurrection meditations I just know are inevitable these next few weeks.

Each blog needs one totally useless comment - and mine, for today, is that I have discovered that zucchini, lightly fried in butter and a bit of parmesan cheese, then tossed with goat cheese, is such a delectable Lenten dish that one can nearly forget (1) that one is fasting and (2) that one is poor and would greatly prefer smoked salmon. I'm going to save any meditations on holy poverty for a while - until, at the least, it is not so cold in here that I'm wondering if the cat's whiskers will fall off.

Time travel

One staple of fiction used to be tales of those who travelled back in time, often to find that there was a situation (about which they would discover new information) about which they could do nothing lest they change the course of history. More recently, writers will indulge their fancy (and great fun that is... even if the historian part of me winces) by imagining 'what if this or that had gone differently,' and writing a version of the outcome.

One near certainty in middle age (when one is fully aware, but often trying to forget, that nothing in this life is ever certain) is that one will begin to think "what if I had done (whatever) differently?" Of course, all of us have made mistakes - some of which we indeed knew better than to make at the time - yet the major wrong decisions we can accept. The puzzles which trouble us are more along the lines of opportunities we feel we missed, decisions which were not wrong but could have been better, and so forth. When we travel into that mental time machine, it is quite easy to berate ourselves about the past as if, when we made choices then, we should have known the future. It makes little difference that we are fully aware that, no matter what choices we had made, we never could know what the outcome would have been.

Some of the books of 'church history' (and I employ the term lightly) and hagiography which were common in my youth tended to give the impression that all and sundry characters were very enlightened, and highly aware, in their own decisions, that the Holy Spirit was on their side. (Those about whom this is true, in any era, tend to be highly dangerous... but I'll save that for now, to continue ravelling my thread about how all is uncertain.) Of course, with centuries of hindsight (and considering that the winners write the history books), the radical innovations which came at the hands of many of the great ones have a fond and respectful glow about them. The sort of works which I am referencing were intended to be inspirational (perhaps in a different sense than that familiar to the Holy Spirit...). It was not emphasised that many saints were loathed in their own time, or that they may have been opposed (or imprisoned!) by church authorities, or that a project they began may have flourished only long after they were gone.

For the great ones, struggle and uncertainty would have been constant. Am I zealous or headstrong? Inspired or defiant? Is this 'voice' that of the devil or God?

I may be capable of competent exegesis, but I am going to indulge my literary inclinations today, fully aware that my treatment of the gospel incident to follow is undoubtedly dreadful exegesis. :) Bear with me - I had the silly thought, reading the gospel for evening prayer, that it seems highly unlikely that any Pharisees would have been hanging around in cornfields to notice what Jesus and his followers were doing on the Sabbath, so my taking liberties is inevitable.

Jesus faced uncertainty from the outset of his ministry. I can just see the evil one, during those temptations following Jesus' baptism, showing Christ the great kingdoms of the world, such a contrast to 'little' Israel. "So, the business with 'my beloved son' and the descent of that dove was the first revelation of a Trinity... who do you think will ever believe that one? The Greeks? And certainly no pious Jew! Where would your message be considered? Egypt?! And you certainly cannot think that your mission will ever be given any prominence in Rome!"

There is such irony in that only the demons were aware of, and acknowledged, Jesus' identity. That does not mean that they ever were quiet in trying to instil doubt! Jesus' temptations were to ignore his unique relationship with the Father, and abandon his vocation of proclaiming the kingdom. It matters little whether these were actual evil spirits (which is not to say that evil was not overcome by the kingdom) or the mere human inclinations to doubt and fear. The voice always says, "fall down and worship me."

Save us from the time of trial. Deliver us from evil.

Sunday, 13 March 2005

Passion Sunday

For Passiontide, I am using Raymond E. Brown's superb (and very lengthy) commentary on the Passion narratives as my spiritual reading. It never fails to strike me that scripture passages which I have read on countless occasions are never exhausted in the richness they have to offer - there is always a new dimension to see.

My good friend and co-contributor here mentioned, on his own blog, that he is reading the NT in Greek at the moment. My own Greek will win no awards, yet I am finding that a word or expression here or there can expand the entire impact of a passage. This may mean little, but just noticing the term for 'cup' ended up sending me in a meditative direction. "This is the cup of my blood..." "Take this cup away from me..."

In his brilliant comparison of the Gethesemane prayer and references in Hebrews, Raymond Brown presents a very powerful image of Jesus' prayer having been answered. He was not spared from dying, of course, but God gave him the victory over death. The temple veil was torn - a pagan centurion acknowledged the Son of God - Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.

I realise, of course, that today I am basically saying 'the grass is green.' Yet it was unfortunate, in the past, that sermons, articles, and the like often carefully steered away from seeing Jesus as having truly been in agony in Gethesemane. It was feared that it would compromise his divinity to see him ask that the very cup of the new and everlasting covenant be taken away - and he had to be seen as knowing the future, having no doubt that the resurrection was soon to come.

I know I have some intense meditations ahead - on the High Priest who himself is the sacrifice - and on how Jesus was confronting both his own horrid suffering and the conflict with evil over which triumph was bringing about the coming of the kingdom.

If there is a major defect in Franciscan approaches, it is that, for all the general appeal of references to Jesus' earthly life, one would think that the incarnation consisted, in full, of Jesus' having been born and died. :) The listener can identify with Him as poor and suffering - but the divine Logos can get lost somewhere.

Saturday, 12 March 2005


This is a topic which has been much on my mind recently. On the practical level, the concept reminds me that people whose perspectives are limited (that is putting it with more charity than that to which I am inclined in dealing with members of this set) spend a good deal of time talking but are totally unaware that they are usually saying nothing. In a more positive sense, and this particularly in my intellectual pursuits, I greatly enjoy seeing how different perspectives can colour attitudes towards a period or concept.

I recall when a couple I knew, who were active in the church where I served at the time, had a fire in their flat. Both the pastor (who also was formed in a Franciscan tradition) and I had spoken to them at length. The moment that others from the church heard of the fire, that fortunately no one had been injured, and that we'd seen them since, the first questions tended to be about how much damage there had been to their possessions and other related business. Both the friar and I would never deny the importance of necessities of life, yet it had not even occurred to either one of us to ask. Franciscans are 'raised' in an environment where material goods are rarely mentioned, and it would not have entered our minds. (We both were ones for ascetic theology as well. This explains why, though both of us have dealt with serious health problems, we both were totally puzzled when we heard others say things such as "the most important thing to pray for is your health.")

In my theological studies, I love reading presentations from varied perspectives. Any scripture scholar would shudder at the sermons of the 14th century, and, though Eamon Duffy presents a delightful treatment of how devotion was fervent in the high middle ages, a specialist in liturgy would consider it a wasteland. Of course, were such an unlikely conversation to arise in my presence, and I was too weary to explain the mediaeval charm, I could inspire a debate between the two about the revised lectionaries, and whether unity of theme justifies a lack of exegetical connection. :)

Undoubtedly, one of my future entries shall be about why the supposed return to a fourth century purity of liturgy was coupled with ignoring that a good deal has happened in the centuries since. Yet another will explore why Martin Luther (in an undying tradition of assuming that Paul of Tarsus was writing systematic theology) had an exegetical method which made it appear that a 1st century Jew was addressing the oppressiveness of mediaeval penitential systems. But this is one of my weary days, so I'll keep this reflection short.

I'm fond of John Henry Newman, probably because he fits my dad's "book learning, but not the ways of the world" category just as well as do I. I'm not suggesting that I have anything approaching his theological knowledge - in fact, I would say that he is probably the only true theologian of 19th century England. I have no doubt of his sincerity or devotion, and would applaud many of his writings. This is not to ignore that he had the worst judgement on the planet, and far more dedication than prudence.

I'll excuse the disaster of the "Second Spring sermon", agreeing with Owen Chadwick that Newman was suffering from the 'disease of conversion' and would have not been so imprudent five years later. Yet it does amaze me that one with Newman's intelligence was not only blind to the insult to his Tractarian roots (I'll not even think of the social and political implications for the moment) but seemed totally unaware that he'd insulted most of the English Catholic community he had just joined. Of course, this was only one of many examples of how, whenever Newman was sent in to fix something, he inevitably made the situation worse. Nor did he, for all his learning, see the flaws in Wiseman's approach.

Heavens, am I dealing in understatement today! Perhaps I'm learning charity of speech after all. :)

Friday, 11 March 2005

I tell His grandmother to tell His mother to tell Him!

It is amazing how, for all my passion for theology and dedication to a life of prayer, I often envy the very simple faith which those of us with doctoral degrees are 'supposed' to dismiss as folk religion and superstition. I believe it was Thomas Aquinas who stressed that the 'gift comes according to the manner of the recipient,' and know full well that, were I personally to spend too much time in 'folk mode,' I assuredly would begin acting like a half-wit. Still, however from afar, I do admire the trusting, childlike faith which is expressed more often at holy wells than in the libraries (where I am far more comfortable.)

To say that folk religion was rampant in the Middle Ages would be an understatement. I am fascinated by the prospect of pilgrimages at which one viewed the palace of Dives and (my favourite) the stone which the builders rejected - fanciful tales of the saints with which the Golden Legend is replete - at least three relics of the head of John the Baptist on view - trees at Glastonbury which sprang from Joseph of Arimathea's staff (and knowing that the Grail just had to be around nearby.) It was an era where, on one level, people were far more realistic than many of us today. They had no illusions that they could figure out how to avoid illness and death, or that they could control every element of their lives. Our fantasies today are far more likely to divert us from the sort of genuineness that is essential to our spiritual lives. Yet I believe that, in the days when there was more understanding of folk religion, there also was genuine expression of faith which had been internalised through, perhaps, just these homely gestures.

We have lost the sense of poetry - perhaps the gloom of purgatory no longer beckons, but neither is there the sense of drama and passion which was very old in the days when Hosts bled and saints bilocated. :) It was old when Phoebus Apollo was still driving his chariot through the skies. We are too rational - and I shall admit this despite being the most rational of creatures. So much of what is holy is beyond our comprehension, let alone expression, yet we cannot bear to say "I don't know." (I'm not suggesting this is new - it is the eternal scourge of the rational. Gregory's writings on the Trinity are exquisite doxology, yet, in 'essay form,' seem tritheistic. I cannot remember the source for this particular quotation, but agree with the author who wryly commented that Augustine's attempts to explain original sin and evil turned him into a sorcerer's apprentice.)

Yesterday, I remembered my dad on this blog - it is time to remember my mother, Giuseppina (Cipi - a generic Italian sobriquet later comically Anglicised to "Chip" by her first grandchildren.) Chip considered the saints to be a large, supportive, extended family. As with most families, it was very much a case of telling one relative things with which another might not be able to assist. Gerardo Maiella, being from the same region and known to be a very powerful intercessor, was a favourite. (There is a story about how Gerardo once lost a sacred vessel down a well - and that it was retrieved by his lowering the statue of the child Jesus on a rope. Somehow, I don't even doubt the truth of that! The simple often have unusual answers to prayer.) She would pour out grief to Anthony of Padua and ask for the remedies - and then become exceedingly cross and argumentative with him if he did not answer.

Chip had an enormous devotion to Mary, and often said the rosary throughout the day. She saw Mary as a poor wife and mother who had endless worries, the more because her son showed a distressing inclination to a lack of respect for his parents by the age of 12. Chip was quite troubled by how Jesus, breaking every rule which applies to Mediterranean children, would go about as an itinerant preacher, not only angering the authorities but, worse, leaving a widowed mother without the support of her firstborn.

Chip regularly placed my difficulties into the tiny hands of the Infant of Prague. How I wish I had such faith! It was amazing the results that often came from that 'emergency novena.' She also would speak at length to Saint Anne about me, explaining that Anne would better understand because Mary may have had no daughters, so "I tell His grandmother to tell His mother to tell Him."

Chip's theology was simple, and indeed typically southern Italian. For example, there was no notion of atonement, let alone any fear of hell - no one's Father is about to cast him into a pit! :) Chip had experienced extreme poverty, buried a child and her husband, had excruciating pain during the last years of her life - and she was not a sweet sort who suffered in silence - yet neither saw the sufferings as a divinely sent trial nor doubted God would answer the prayers for the temporal necessities - even if a miracle might be involved. (This, of course, was a refreshing change from a viewpoint I saw... elsewhere. One would have the impression that God sends us suffering, and only performs miracles to either prove his own divinity or point out who should be raised to the altars.)

In this post, I am breaking at least ten of my own rules! :) I could easily lecture on the apophatic - on detachment - on the inadequacy of our views of God. Still, I wish that, as Chip easily could, I could take the hand of the Infant of Prague statue, and believe that whatever temporal needs I had, he would be ready with a solution.

My own approaches may be theologically sound (and I have not lost the poetry), but they have an inherent loneliness. I should like to believe that God assists us in temporal needs, but I know full well that the devout often ended up in concentration camps or dying in the street. I long to cry out to him (or to visit the holy wells), with the same trust that my mother had, and my intellectual side reminds me that all with which I should be concerned is that He calls me to more intimate union with him. I'm not supposed to care what misfortunes befall me... but know full well that I do indeed.

Somehow, to add 'rest in peace and rise in glory' here would all but seem inappropriate. :) I more have the image that Chip is sitting at a table with Mary and Anne, and that they are sharing anecdotes about the worries their children presented.

Twelve out of ten people walking around are nuts

No, even my mathematical skills are not so dreadful that I do not see 'twelve out of ten' as logical. Rather, that is a classic quotation of my dad's. This favourite expression began as "7 out of ten," but gradually grew - he would add "it went up." He also was quite inclined to say, frequently, that too many people had "the book learning, but not the ways of the world," and that "the smarter you make'm, the dumber they get." (It probably is obvious who he usually meant, but his commentary on a lack of common sense amongst the intellectual nonetheless has some validity.)

My father, Sebastiano (he called himself "Sam," disliking "fancy" names), died on the 14th of March 1997. (Both my parents would die in March, and at 5:30 AM - my mother, Giuseppina, on the 17th in 2002.) It seems appropriate to share a bit of his 'wisdom' here. Sam was not the world's most devout man - on the day when he unexpectedly came in whilst I was at meditation, he seemed a combination of uneasy and afraid, and asked, "Why are you kind of like mesmerising yourself?" The only comments on the scriptures I recall was in relation to the gospel of the labourers in the vineyard. (For one from a family of tenant farmers, labouring in a vineyard hit a little too close to home.) "That is such a stupid thing! Who are the nuts who make them read stuff like that in church?"

Sam's belief was that what God required of him was caring for his spouse and family. I may have more theological knowledge, but must admit that I shall be very fortunate indeed if I live to fulfil my vocation as well as he did his.

There is a saying in Avellino (it loses something in the translation from the dialect) "why raise children? You could raise pigs and at least kill and eat them." This must be remembered in Sam's single reflection on a sermon. At the time (this must have been 1970 or so), there was a children's book called "The Giving Tree," which was a tale of a man and his tree, from climbing it in childhood to using it to build a first house to when the man, now very elderly, rests his weary self on the stump which is all that remains of this most sacrificial tree. The priest at the service Sam attended had told the congregation the story, and attempted to connect the tree to Christ's own giving. Sam would tell me about this sermon later, drawing his own conclusions: "Goes to show you how parents. You give'm all they got all your life, then they sit on you."

No one sat on him, of course... but my innate cynicism (well, all right, the variety burnt idealists have... a slightly different one from dad's) seems an inheritance I came by honestly.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, padre mio. Time to go and kind of like mesmerise myself now.

Thursday, 10 March 2005

We can prove Jesus' message if the tomb we found really belonged to his brother James

I'd best make this note to begin, before I become too sensitive about my posts. This blog is merely reflections - not formal essays, and not edited.

I have never had any gift for science, nor do I generally have a high level of interest in the subject. Nonetheless, there are elements which I find awe-inspiring. When I saw the photographs of the planets from the Voyager project, or a presentation of the DNA strand, for example, I felt a combination of wonder and worship of the Creator. Since childhood, and no less now, for some reason I am rather inspired by looking at dinosaur skeletons.

Today, I heard a BBC report about current efforts which may enlighten us about the origins of matter. I undoubtedly would not be able to understand them, but it is quite exciting. (I'm going to reserve comments on the story that followed... nuclear power somehow gives me mental pictures that are less inspiring.)

During the Middle Ages, many saw each species (including individual flora and fauna) not only as distinctly created but as presenting a lesson. (I just heard an indignant Miaow from my cat, Mireille, about the injustice of some of the conclusions... I must get that cat to stop sitting on me when I'm at the computer.) Of course, many of the 'creatures' whose humours or characteristics they considered were totally fanciful - even Hildegard of Bingen sets forth the medical usage for parts of the gryphon. I do envy their consciousness of the hand of God in creation, and, hard though it is for a modern mind to grasp, find it quite lovely that divine revelation (in some specific detail) was seen as expressed in anything from the ant-lion to the sun. Most would have had no words for this, yet I see an internalised recognition of cosmic redemption and revelation. (Only a doctor of humanities would be able to develop such a poetic image... bear with me, because I am that odd creature, an overly intellectual Franciscan.)

At the moment, I am studying the 19th century in great depth. One of the elements of my studies which I'm finding fascinating is that, even when I'm hardly a stranger to a period, the scope of sources I need to pursue greatly expands the viewpoints with which I am familiar.

On one level, it would have been wonderful for those in the period to have the new knowledge of geology, archaeology, biology, and ancient cultures available. Even with my scant knowledge of science, it takes a moment to remind myself that it would have been staggering as well - though the amazed and upset would not have been the same. Where the 'argument from design,' and the idea of scriptural accounts as detailed history, etc., clearly were intended to foster faith, the fears of a threat to that faith from new discoveries are understandable. I wonder if the fear was the source of the 'crisis of faith' more than the discoveries themselves.

I realise that Darwin was not the last word on anything, yet I doubt too many of us today, however devout, would see a concept of evolution as incompatible with creation. I'm rather enjoying the exercise of trying to place myself in evangelical Victorian 'shoes' to grasp how very frightening this was to many. How could the argument from design be squared with a history of creation which destined some species to die out? (That the two approaches have no real connection would have stopped no one with this fear, I am sure.)

Naturally, it would be my inclination to think that the new knowledge of ancient cultures would have been most exciting. I would think that people who loved the scriptures would find this love enriched by knowing more of the lands and civilisations there referenced. It is interesting to see sources from the time which express confusion in this area. The previous concept (on the parts of those writers), where Israel was unique not only in salvation history but in cultural development (...this working class kid is having a brief giggle about how this reminds me of Victorian ideas about prosperity and national power being the clear mark of divine providence... let us pass over that Israel always seemed to be in trouble...), was threatened by seeing that, in many respects, they were not so different from those around them.

I know there still are many people who have a fear of knowledge - the slightest checking of stories on the Internet is a 'revelation.' My question would be why those who are so certain that divine providence is on their side would so fear that ideas and questions alone could demolish faith. I suppose it is part of human nature to lack the honesty to say "I don't know."

Our faith can never be 'proven.' The most avid believer is aware of the limitations of our vision. Where would, for example, discovering Noah's ark make a difference? It might add credence to the historical background for the Genesis account - but would not prove divine existence, revelation, the grace of response.

Giggling once more - heaven knows that the Victorians who saw biological theories of evolution as threatening loved an evolutionary theory of their own. They could be quite smug about being in a time which had evolved to a point of unmatched perfection. (Their 'optimism' is beyond the grasp of my pessimistic mind... and it is tragic that it would take world wars to shake some out of this complacency.) I am wondering how they dealt with believing that this perfection was finally achieved in the 19th century... if the example of the perfect man had come about nearly 2,000 years earlier.

Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Three-legged stools and new explorations of the scriptures

Internet searches, as we all know, can sometimes yield quite unexpected results. I have just seen a site (which I shall not distinguish by linking here) which accused the late Raymond E. Brown (a great favourite of mine) of heresy, because he denies the literal truth of the visit of the Magi. It was a Roman Catholic site, and I would imagine that its authors have never read any of Brown's works... considering that he has multiple footnotes to Vatican documents as a rule, and speaks of the judgement of the magisterium as essential in considering results of biblical criticism.

Well I, of course, am a heretic (or at least would seem so to such webmasters as those.) I am not likely to reference 'fidelity to the magisterium' any time soon, for all that I see validity in teaching authority. I'm much more inclined towards a patristic approach, where orthodoxy (when it is finally established) is based on Christology and the Trinity than on other elements of belief. Yet, in the extensive (gruelling, fascinating) studies of the scriptures in which I am now engaged (sometimes under protest... but it's part of the degree programme) , I can see clearly how ecclesiology and the scriptures must go hand in hand for any coherent whole. I am not about to define precisely how Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, continues revelation through his church - but one can see this happening from the earliest days of Christianity.

I'm smiling, nostalgic for the moment. I never could have been classed as fundamentalist, yet, now and then, I do miss the images many of us had of scriptural accounts before biblical criticism was as developed as it is now. For example, I well remember when it was common for Christians, even those speaking from the pulpit, to picture that the gospels were eyewitness accounts, with notes taken as Jesus was speaking. (There was no real allowance for the need of post-resurrection understanding.) I would imagine we thought that Jesus greeted the apostles, right after the resurrection, with "Happy Easter, I am the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity," and then spent the following forty days giving them an intensive course in systematic theology.

It can initially be distressing to realise that, as scholarship has shown, accounts often incorporate the understanding which the early Church had attained - "Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations" being understood, not a record of Jesus' own words. Nonetheless, it is all the more awe-inspiring to realise that, within a brief period, the Church had recognised dimensions of Jesus' identity and mission which would have boggled the mind of any first century Jew (let alone Gentile), and equally had seen the vocation of the church itself to proclaim the kingdom.

I well remember when it was generally thought that Luke (dear and glorious physician... no wonder he was the only evangelist to list the details of the bloody sweat in Gethesemane) had extensive details for his infancy narrative because he and Mary had known each other. Matthew was assumed to have obtained his version from Joseph... apparently Mary would not have considered visits from the Magi and taking off for Egypt as important details. The essence of these accounts, which I have studied with avid interest, is even more wonderful than most of us had supposed - yet I belief it is easy, at first, to shed at least one sentimental tear for the days when the literal versions seemed very exciting.

I, of course, am not a scripture scholar. (My field is the arts and humanities, and, in my theological pursuits, leans towards ascetic.) Naturally, my highly literary mind formed many a meditation on parts of the scriptures in the past. One example springs to mind. I recall meditating on Peter's Pentecost sermon from Acts. I was thinking of how, less than two months earlier, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus and fled in fear. Now, with Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod Antipas still in power, Peter (undoubtedly sharing all he'd learnt in the crash theology course), is inspired, fearless, charismatic in his proclamation.

The scholars would point out that Luke was incorporating the understanding of the early Church in the form of the sermon. Yes, Peter would prove himself to be rather avid a preacher later, but, just for a moment, I was sorry to lose the image of the quick transformation.

I do not want to ramble unduly... with my love for the mediaeval, I could soon find myself going through the legends, vivid explanations and embellishments, and so forth characteristic of that period. Yet a point is clear. The fathers of the Reformation were quite right in seeing what passed for tradition getting much out of control. Genuine tradition, which by its nature was exegetical, needs to be remembered in our studies of the scriptures and approaches to doctrine. Ecclesiology already was critical at the very time the New Testament was being composed.

I am tempted to begin expounding here about how the understanding came to the Church often through its worship - we understand many truths in doxology before reason can express them. But I shall save that for another day.

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

Silliness to dispel late-winter sadness

Winter is always rather miserable - yet, by March, it is the worse because it seems it shall never end. It may be helpful to have a brief 'meditation' on people for whom I would feel sorry... almost as much as I do for myself.

Eve - who had only one shot, winner take all.
Adam - who had, over a lifespan of 99 years, to hear his wife nagging him for having listened to her and blaming him for everyone's labour pains.
Cain - Though I assuredly do not condone fratricide, one must recall that Cain had inherited a weak willed and impulsive nature from both sides of the family. And, after all, his gift had been rejected - and brother Abel was probably disgustingly smug.
Esau - who was constantly being the victim of his conniving, double-dealing, sneaky brother, who would not allow him to have so much as a little lentil soup.
Leah - who was a pawn in a dirty trick; knew her husband would not have married her had he not thought she was her sister; and who married a man who was so lustful and self-centred that he did not even notice with whom he was in bed.
Moses - who would spend 40 years wondering if he would have been better off had he played ball with the Establishment.
Job - who had the lion's share of torments, perhaps the worst of which was having to constantly endure stupid and condescending advice.
Zechariah - who was struck dumb for merely asking a very intelligent question.
Joseph (spouse of Mary) - who had to accept the most bizarre explanations in the history of the world, with only dreams as evidence.
Mary - who spent three days fretting over a lost, precocious adolescent - and then, upon finding him, be spoken too in a highly cheeky fashion.
Peter - who always seemed to say or do the wrong thing, despite the best of intentions. His distinguished pontificate notwithstanding, all anyone ever seems to remember of the poor man is how he behaved on the night of his ordination, never even allowing for that he'd probably had a few.
Pontius Pilate - who, at one time or another, must have asked the gods to grant him universal and enduring fame.

But, most of all, I feel very sorry for that fig tree!

Augustine and 'pre-fall' life for mankind

It is amazing how much one can see, when rereading texts in middle age, which escaped one during the early adult years. I'm developing quite a warm affection for Augustine of Hippo. I see a burnt idealist - one very keen to glorify God for how grace worked in his own life, but saddled with the natural discouragement of later years.

I am here recording a response I gave in relation to a question about life before the fall. Since Augustine is known to all too many people as if he merely thought sex was evil and women wicked (a most narrow and unjust portrayal), my comments here are to be understood as having responded to this concern on the part of the 'questioners.'

Augustinian thought dominated that about the fall (which I do not see as literal). I know I am greatly over-simplifying, but Irenaeus stressed the immaturity of mankind, and immaturity (in himself or as a concept!) was a trait for which Augustine had no tolerance. In his Confessions, Augustine, looking back and seeing how divine providence worked in his life, is spot on about our human weakness in his story of the pears... but not able to make some allowance for that he was barely more than a child. As a young philosopher, he had a great preoccupation with evil (which would endure), yet who, however brilliant or learned, has true wisdom in the early adult years?

In a nutshell, as a Manichean Augustine saw dualism (where creation itself is evil and not the work of the true God) as an explanation for evil. Though his break with Manichean thought was initially scientific, Augustine equally saw dualism, whatever answers it seemed to give for the existence of evil, as compromising divine omnipotence (which indeed would be true.)

The idea of the fall was hardly original with Augustine, but we need to remember that (though the God of whom Augustine wrote in 'The Trinity' is quite lovely) Augustine never knew when to stop when he was refuting heresies. I always had the impression that he was so intent on not compromising omnipotence that he had to make everything in creation conform to a logic where the divine hand directed even the evil and weakness we humans concoct. (For a time, he thought grace was irresistible... that wavered a bit when North Africa and the Roman Empire was crumbling in his sight.)

I'm refraining from giving a full history here, but I do think this is a key point in how Augustine 'crafted the details' of the fall. Augustine had an image of mankind as endowed with intellect, memory, and will, but as having had control over and use of these faculties, before the fall, to an extent we could never know afterward. The sin of Adam was more serious than any one of those to follow, because, working with Augustine's reasoning, Adam, unlike us, would have had capabilities (intellectual, control of the will) that are unmatched, and also would have seen the results of his actions, however far-reaching.

The references to sex in Augustine's treatment of the fall are, I believe, very heavily flavoured by the circumstances of his own conversion. However, a part of it has to do with the control I mentioned. Augustine would have seen mankind as having control of emotions, arousal, and so forth before the fall. Sexual arousal and the actions to follow would have been chosen freely - there would be no sudden erections (Augustine mentions this lack of control specifically as related to the fall), nor ill-advised sexual relationships which were damaging or which one later regretted. It was not sex itself which was the divine punishment... Augustine, of all people, hardly would have pictured a state of Paradise without it...

In some thought that was popular amongst Augustine's contemporaries (and recall that Christianity came into its own during a period when Gnosticism, wherein all matter was evil, was popular - and indeed could seem to answer questions Christianity left hanging), it indeed was assumed that, with mankind's nature being fallen, asceticism meant becoming an angel - no body. Now, that was not going to be achieved, but denial of physical needs (of any kind, not only sexual) was a quest for the angelic state, in which one supposedly could approach the state before the fall. (Augustine was moderate compared to many others of his day!) There also were exegetical treatments in which God's having clothed Adam and Eve in skins before their expulsion from the garden was taken to mean that they would have had no human flesh, as we know it, had they not fallen.

Yet is it not appealing to imagine a 'pre fall state'? [Smile] No evil, no suffering, no illness... minds of brilliance we cannot imagine, emotions under our control... Augustine, whose dualism originally one needs to recall, could square God's perfection and omnipotence with a world that was 'good.' Not only sin but all sorrow and pain as mankind's fault - and as an affliction God sent only in response to the sin - could be seen (if one wished!) as the inevitable action of a still loving Father. I've always found Augustine's explanation of evil as the 'absence of good' rather inadequate, but it fits neatly into his thought.

Augustine's largest problem, when he was refuting heresies, was two-fold. First, he was so intent on demolishing the others' point of view that he ended up chasing his own tail. (Unbaptised babies' being condemned is gruesome, for example.) Second, though he knew well that much of what is divine is beyond our comprehension, let alone explanation, he tried so to set forth details that an explanation, for example, intended not to compromise omnipotence could turn God into rather a vengeful tyrant.

I think that those new to theology need to be reminded (in relation to all classic writings) that systematic theology and 'texts' were rather a late development. Many documents, particularly those from the first five centuries of the Church, were composed specifically to refute heresies of the time. They therefore should not be taken to mean that a subject was the theologian's sole preoccupation.

Monday, 7 March 2005

A memory of Tom

My old friend, Tom - a Franciscan friar - died on the 2nd of March, 1993. Naturally, he is on my mind this week, and I thought I would share a memory... it is hoped for the comic relief of my readers.

Tom was a diminutive, choleric man, dramatic in speech and gesture, and inclined to think of himself as Thomas Becket. Brilliant though he was, Tom could have a thought which made little sense except in his own mind, and suddenly address this as if the hearer knew exactly what he meant. He was avidly Roman Catholic (in the militant version developed to perfection in southern Ireland, from which he hailed), and not terribly tolerant of my Anglican leanings. Tom would use various and vivid metaphors, derived from everything from scripture to history to US baseball.

It was a morning in the early 1990s, and Tom, with a wrath of all the gods, suddenly burst out with, "There are limits! I cannot believe what he has done!" I expressed a bit of puzzlement. Tom continued, "I know a pope can dispense himself from anything he likes, but there are limits!"

I asked, "Are you referring to the pope's meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury?"

Little Becket naturally bristled at his title's being usurped, and stormed, "There is no Archbishop of Canterbury! There is only a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster! That character in Canterbury is not a bishop! He is not a priest! (Crescendo) I suppose you think that Anthony Quinn was the pope!"

Becket suddenly was replaced by Pius V, and, in what I assume was a reference to Canterbury and the ordination of women, Tom ominously declared: "There is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic church! And there are not Bo Peeps in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church!"

Pius then was superseded by, of all people, I assume Babe Ruth, as Tom began swinging a huge bat (fortunately imaginary). "In our Holy Mother Church, it's ONE strike, you're out! And it does not matter that you are a much better Christian than I am! One strike, you're out! And you may not, under pain of mortal sin, answer me with saying you have never denied anything! "

I, of course, needed to summon every speck of my previous theatrical experience not to laugh aloud at this commentary, the more since it was delivered with such righteous thunder. However, I made a 'fatal error.' Tom, waiting for some humble response (though he should have known me better than to expect just that), finally said outright, "Well! Is it not true that there is ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic church?"

I answered, "Have I ever denied that?"

May Tom rest in peace and rise in glory... even if heaven is quite crowded with all of those Anglican saints. :)

Spiral Staircase

This is not one of my more scholarly musings, but a recording of various items which impressed me in reading Karen Armstrong's "The Spiral Staircase." Having read Karen's various works, I found this latest to be an intriguing picture of how she has achieved self-knowledge (admitting, for example, to bitterness which clouded her works from the 1980s), and how her own spiritual path has developed.

It was a deeply impressive book. The presentations brought much alive - having illness judged (by superiors - and a close-minded psychiatrist) to be a bid for attention - frustration in academic life - dealing with epilepsy - and, ultimately, a life centred largely on studying religious texts from varied traditions. (I am not going into much detail, not wishing to be a 'spoiler' for those who have not read the book and may wish to do so.)

I would agree that the great mystics ultimately saw God as unknoweable. (However, I believe most remained theists - their unknowing was a concession to the limitations of our own vision, not denial of an objective reality or idea that we have created God... though Lord knows we can do that very well.) Though I would highly recommend this book, I would caution those who are, for example, new Christian seekers that Karen's path, which indeed seems to work for her, is not in any way to be thought superior to orthodoxy. :)

This somehow brings the following to mind...

I receive some interesting mail at times, about the mystics about whom I have composed the introductory essays on my site. The idea often arises that the mystics were not orthodox believers, or set themselves up in opposition to the Church. (The grief which they received from the ecclesiastical authorities is another topic for another thread.) One needs to recall that, in the 13-14th centuries, the importance of church, public worship, and sacrament were not in question as they would be in later days. Authors from the period often do not mention 'basics' of the faith, because such would have been assumed. For example, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, writing for one whom he has discerned to be called to high contemplation, would not need to tell her to receive Communion. Walter Hilton treated of only baptism and penance, not the Eucharist, in his writings - not because the Eucharist was not of importance, but because, in Walter's time and place, there were disputes about penance and baptism with which those whom he directed would have been familiar.

Karen's work is deeply impressive - but her analysis of texts seems more literary (understandable - with that being her field) than exegetical, historical, or theological. For example, her discussion of Paul of Tarsus presents only one of various possible views (I can think of prominent scripture scholars who would hold quite different ones), as if it were the 'answer.'

Friday, 4 March 2005

Why is Julian of Norwich not canonised by the RC Church?

This question arises now and then from visitors to my site. Though Julian has been commemorated by the Church of England since 1980, even John Paul, surely singularly prolific as regards canonisations, has failed to raise her to the altars. I would surmise that, considering the lack of biographical and other information about Julian (we do not even know her name - "Julian" being the name of the church to which she was attached), the process of canonisation in such a case would be akin to that of beatifying an anonymous author.

The only certain information regarding Julian is sparse. There is an account of her vision of Christ crucified, and development of her spiritual insights, in her own writings, then a brief reference to a visit with Julian in Margery Kempe's autobiography. We know that Julian lived to an advanced age, because some residents of Norwich were still leaving her bequests in their wills when she would have been past the point of scriptural old age. (This may not even indicate that they knew her well - benefactors may have been concerned with intercession for their souls.)

In the past, there was speculation that Julian may have been a Benedictine nun or a Beguine - and the current, popular trend (for example, in Kenneth Leech's recent writings) is to depict Julian as a married lady whose spouse and children may have perished during the Plague. I rather dislike such speculation, for all that I should be most interested were there solid facts available about Julian. It seems as if those doing the speculating are trying to construct a biography which would make Julian more 'relevant' to readers, or make it easier for women to 'identify' with her.

Julian's writings show exceptional insight - and a single-minded approach to things divine which is devoid of preoccupation with herself. This seems a common hallmark of the holy ones in any age. I believe the doctrinal richness and depth of understanding which one finds in Julian's writings should be allowed to stand on its own. Let us not ignore truths in her work, which can lead us to growth in our own lives (which we well may be trying to avoid!), by focussing on how Julian was 'more like us.'

At a distance of centuries, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Julian's solitary life, so totally dedicated to prayer, was easily understood in 'her day.' Though her intercession may have been valued then (when torments of purgatory seemed to beckon at every corner, and sudden death meant total dependence on the prayers of the living), consecrated life, let alone that of the solitary, would have been a puzzlement. If the Rule for Anchoresses is any indication, others who wished to consult the solitaries were far more likely to be carrying gossip and personal woes than seeking guidance.

Another point from the Rule for Anchoresses seems quite telling - and let us not let this disappear into a haze of thinking that it merely is a sad example of women acting inferior. Anchoresses clearly were often women of learning and theological insight, and the author of the Rule reminds them to listen to the friars who may visit (whose knowledge may be less.) This seems quite a wise point! When one spends most of the time alone, especially if she is quite gifted and perhaps very advanced in prayer, her own thoughts can be very powerful. The longing for the company of others and an outlet for sharing these ideas can make one forget that the very blessing of turning inward can have another side of blotting out the blessings another may share.

Richard Rolle's poetry contains some of the loveliest reflections on the spiritual life in history. Yet he was never open to insights from others - indeed, he speaks of the larger church, particularly of friars, with unconcealed irritation. His eremetic life may have included intense, unitive prayer, but was somewhat lacking in love of God and neighbour.

Julian was hardly well known in her day. (Let us not assume that Margery trekked to Norwich because of Julian's fame. Margery was always 'trekking' somewhere.) Yet her timeless writing is a treasure that many, 6 centuries later, are only beginning to discover. That reality is far more valuable than speculation.

Not, of course, that everyone is looking for such insights, nor that most would have the slightest notion of what these mystics were encountering. Several years ago, when I visited a Catholic book store, I enquired about a new book regarding mysticism, entitled "The Satisfied Life." Though it was in stock, it was difficult to find... the book shop had placed it on the shelf marked "Human Sexuality."

Products of the time

I must admit to amusement when I receive e-mail or see popular books which express the assumption that everyone in history was 'typical of their time.' (It is funnier still when a correspondent will refer to Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi in that fashion, as if the two were contemporaries.) Aside from that saints (and other prominent figures) are not typical of any era - and, indeed, often live in contrast to the values of their day, the underlying assumption that everyone in a certain time and place is identical is absurd.

Recently, as part of my 19th century studies, I was reading some intriguing studies of Roman Catholic approaches in France during that period. The scholarly works made plain that the treatment was of trends which some embraced, yet those aimed at a popular market would give the impression that such approaches as sacrificing oneself to atone for the national sin of killing the monarchs were prime concerns of all married ladies who had received RC baptism. I smiled (stopping short of a grimace) at one work's hint that Zelie Martin (Therese's mother) was typical of her day. I doubt too many brides spend their wedding days sobbing at the grille of a Visitation convent, crushed by the recognition that a dream of convent life is now never to be realised.

Yet, as I hover at the half-century mark, I can see how popular ideas of any time can influence one's actions - even if one is inclined, as I myself am, to scoff at such concepts as 'peer pressure.' Within the past few months, I have been going through my book collection, disposing of various works that long outlived their usefulness. In looking through some of the books, such as were popular thirty years ago (my university days), ideas that were popular then, and the avenues of their expression (workshops, popular books, lectures, approaches in convent life), came back to me very vividly.

One book was written by a priest who had all sorts of marvels occur (and magical solutions to his life problems appear) through his involvement with a charismatic community. Another was of the early 'pop psychology' genre (mercifully pre-dating the current era, when people love to play at being mentally ill and think the rest of the population has no motive except manipulating them or violating their 'boundaries.') The latter book had a thesis that openness, sharing one's pain, and otherwise being 'real' would lead to love, communication, and mutual compassion.

There are valid themes in both works, yet who, then, would have seen the gaping holes? I well remember my charismatic days, when weekly prayer meetings often meant hearing testimonies on the line of "I knew God wanted me to do this - it seemed impossible - and then everything necessary to make it possible fell into place." (For example, one would hear of a chance meeting with someone who needed exactly what this person had to offer, and could provide the opportunity and backing.) I certainly would see value in being genuine, yet being 'real,' in that time and place, too often involved gestures which could come across as self-centred. As well, the concept of 'I am real - I have shared my pain and my history - therefore the others shall respond with support and love' made no allowance for the inevitable, varied reactions others could have to this. It was treated as if it were 'cause and effect.'

In religious settings, such as the parishes in which I served, I blush to recall how very self-absorbed, self-pitying, and even childish many of the stories which Sisters shared must have appeared to some of the others. How could most parishioners have known that Sisters, who were just emerging from a 'culture' where one never revealed personal details, let alone complained, had influences (workshops, books, community gatherings) which set forth that sharing one's struggles and pain would make one more 'real,' and equally lead others to feel comfortable in sharing their own situations?

No one who has lived in consecrated life would have any illusions about its lacking struggle and sacrifice. Yet, looking back, the parishioners in these working class churches, many of whom constantly struggled just to support their families, would most likely have seen the inherent sacrifices of their own lives as merely part of 'the package,' and accepted the challenges as part of their personal responsibility. (Yes, the view would be limited - people who are working the hours which my dad did, and who think their children most fortunate not to have had the extreme poverty of twenty years earlier, could hardly have conceived of spiritual struggles, injustice from superiors, 'job satisfaction,' or intellectual needs.) Those unfamiliar with religious life would see nuns as free of responsibilities (since their own responsibilities were largely connected specifically with providing for one's home and children), never needing to worry about housing, and privileged in the opportunities they'd had for education and professional outlets.

Nuns would speak of their struggles and frustration, seeking to 'build a bridge' to those around them. Yet, while people may not have responded out of politeness, many of the hearers must have been quite puzzled! When survival takes all of one's strength, one would have little understanding of needs outside of one's scope of personal experience.

The 'pop psychology' book which I mentioned indeed was correct that people ache to be loved. (Though how many people would admit to this today I cannot say. Such an admission could be classed as making one 'needy' or lacking in 'self-esteeem.') Yet there is no concept of prudence or discretion in the author's examples.

One of the situations mentioned involved a university student (who was acting on the principles in this book.) She lived in a building where one tenant was generally avoided because she had a very nasty way about her. The young woman somehow learnt that it was the 'nasty tenant's' birthday and brought her a cake. The birthday girl then burst into tears at being remembered, and confided the reasons she'd been in such pain.

Such happy endings are moving - yet I can think of varied possible reactions people could have were a stranger to show up at their doors with birthday cakes...

Yet, oddly enough, reading these two books once again so called forth the 'climate' of my young adult (religious) years that it was rather like receiving absolution. :) I may be no holier today than then, but the perspective of middle age makes me shudder to think of how proud, self-centred, and even unrealistic I must have appeared. Looking back, for example, I was one of many young religious who entered relatively strict Orders, valuing the centuries-old life yet thinking it would be tailored to our own needs were we to only make them known. :)

I certainly was not alone in this - and my memories here are of dedicated, devout, sincere young nuns, not of those who lacked a high regard for the life. We had come to adulthood in a time when God's call meant God's equally being 'on call' to provide whatever means - including an occasional miracle - we saw as necessary to our being his instruments. (It was a time when this concept was highly personal. Little would we have fully grasped that the convent ethos was based on being community minded.) If anything was contrary to what one needed to do, surely revealing this would lead to a reaction of 'we love our dear Sister - what must we do, change, or add that will help her fulfil her potential?'

The normal reaction of superiors, of course, would have been far more likely to be 'if our Sister cannot conform to this - or needs to do that - which is contrary to our custom, why does she stay?' Those of us in the early years of religious life would know that the contributions of Sisters might be highly valued by a community. It did not occur to us that what we saw as eagerness to share our own talents, gifts, and education would not give a positive impression - at least, not yet! One's main concern was supposed to be having the community form one.

Returning to the present... Some of the correspondence I receive about my site topics is rather odd. (I have received mail from those who never heard of 'mysticism' in relation to Christians, or who think Julian of Norwich was a New Age practitioner.) Specific to my 'blog musing' today, I have noticed that people see the mediaeval mystics as having been prominent, well known, and eagerly sought (perhaps as if they had appeared on international television...).

The bare fact was that their lives were filled with love and dedication, but hardly with glamour or fame. Those whose writings are preserved are known far better today than they ever were, during their lives and often for centuries to follow. The spiritual life seldom is exciting - more often, it is rather banal. Most of the great directors would have seen the calling that, for example, an anchoress had, yet had the pragmatic attitude of 'this is the life - now we just live it.'

Yes, the Middle Ages, as far as religious beliefs were concerned, was a most colourful period! Legends of saints and miracles - the dark side of pilgrimages to appease God and let him take the Plague away - Hosts which bled - whatever - all are interesting topics to treat, and I undoubtedly shall get to them eventually. Yet there is an element today, which can blind us to spiritual growth, which seems a product of the modern era. However loving our motives, we can end up making ourselves into idols when our own circumstances become too fascinating in our own eyes!